Dispatches from the Special Libraries Association Conference

I recently attended the Special Libraries Association Annual Conference in San Diego, and wanted to share some of what I learned about libraries and conventions.

Logo Image for the Special Libraries Association Annual Conference

First, some of you might be wondering what a special library is:

  • It offers depth of knowledge in a specific subject field, like medicine, business, law, publishing, or a specific subject area.
  • It’s more of a reference resource or a place to dig into research than a place where a casual reader might check books out.
  • Special librarians focus on databases and books covering a specific subset of topics, rather than general information resources.
  • Some places that might surprise you have special libraries affiliated with them: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a special library that’s open to researchers, and so does the Baseball Hall of Fame. The United Nations has a number of library facilities to assist in research and keep records of proceedings.
  • You might have seen the news in February that Beyonce hired a librarian to catalog her library of interviews and over 50,000 hours of film footage. That would qualify as a special library, too!
Image of San Diego Convention Center

San Diego Convention Center, photo by Elizabeth Willse

A number of businesses and law firms have libraries in-house to assist employees with research. Special libraries can also be affiliated with nonprofits, universities and even sports organizations.

Because so many different kinds of libraries can be classified as special libraries, there are many divisions within the SLA. This gives members a chance to connect  with those who have similar specialties. Divisions like Academic; Business and Finance; Food, Agriculture and Nutrition; the Baseball Caucus; and Physics-Astronomy-Mathematics are focused on the topic area a librarian covers. Divisions like Solo Librarians; Taxonomy; and Competitive Intelligence focus on the kind of work a librarian does within an organization.

Some of the librarians I met or heard speak in panels over the course of the week work for organizations like: Exxon; Weill Cornell Medical in Qatar; the FBI (as an information analyst); St. Jude’s Hospital; Shure (a microphone company); the Library of Congress; NASA; numerous law firms; and in all kinds of academic specialties at colleges and universities all over the world. Of all the librarians I met during the week, I think the Food Agriculture and Nutrition Committee Chair,  from Christchurch, New Zealand, traveled the greatest distance to San Diego.  I even met two SLA-bound librarians on my flight to San Diego (including my neighbor on the flight. Small world!)

A good portion of the conference was dedicated to giving members a chance to connect and learn from one another. Presentations hosted by different divisions were open to all. Throughout the conference a number of divisions held open houses at the hotel. This gave a chance for existing members to stay in touch, and allowed new and curious members like me to learn more. I found the open houses especially valuable for learning more about the types and subject areas of special libraries and for getting a chance to talk to experienced librarians. I think one of the most important things I learned from the librarians I talked to was that you don’t necessarily need a background in a specific subject area to succeed in a special library focused on a particular topic or industry. What matters is adapting the skills you have to the requirements of the job and being willing to learn fast once you’re in the job. That was a heartening outlook for someone still in school.

A panel entitled “Dream Jobs: What’s It Like to Work THERE?” was presented by librarians from the San Diego Zoo, the Sonoma County Wine Library, and a librarian who had worked in the Disney Animation Research Library and now works for Guthy-Renker, a direct marketing company. Dream jobs, indeed!

While some of the presentations I attended were pretty tightly focused on the topics and jargon I’m covering in school, I learned a few things that might translate well to AMACOM readers:

A panel on Systems Librarianship (librarians acting as intermediaries between traditional librarian knowledge and IT tasks like  programming, web design and database design) brought home the point that it’s good to develop some web and technical skills, to communicate with IT effectively, and work together.

When a librarian giving a presentation on techniques for doing pre-research to get an overview of a topic said “Use Wikipedia,” a gasp went up from the audience. But it’s not a bad notion: the links listed as references at the bottom of a Wikipedia page are updated regularly; and a Wikipedia entry on a technical topic can give you a quick overview of the kinds of terms to use to search a more specialized database. The same presenter also talked about LinkedIn Skills as a good resource to learn the terms associated with an unfamiliar industry to help you build context.

I admit that I went to the panel on “Ninja Skills for Librarians” because of the title, but it turned out to be a really smart presentation: applying martial arts principles like balance, discipline, and respect to workplace situations (and the presenters demonstrated a few punches and blocks, too!) That combination of a fun metaphor with a good set of lessons is a smart way to organize a presentation in any field.

And some more general conference ideas:

When you’re at a conference or another situation where you’re meeting tons of people, always write on the business cards a little something like when you met or what you talked about. It helps when you’ve got a stack at the end of the conference.

Use social media. There were a handful of sessions that caught my eye but I wasn’t able to attend because I was already booked somewhere else or because a session I had my eye on turned out to be too crowded. Being able to send a Tweet with the conference hashtag asking for notes and slides, and then being able to get a glimpse of the panel’s main points distilled into 140 characters by those in attendance, meant I didn’t feel pressured to try to do everything at once.

Image, Exterior of the Geisel Library

Geisel Library, photo by Elizabeth Willse

Take some time to  play tourist.  SLA arranged a tour of San Diego’s Historic Gaslamp district on one sunny afternoon. The chance to stretch my legs and learn about the neighborhood near the conference center made a nice break, and what I learned about San Diego’s former red light district made a terrific ice breaker for networking conversations. Later in the week, I went on a tour of the library at Qualcomm and the Geisel Library at UC San Diego (named for Theodore Geisel, Dr. Seuss), which gave me a chance to see some of the concepts I heard about in presentations like collaborative learning and the library as a social space put into practice.

Take some downtime during and after the conference. Most conferences come with schedules that run late into the night and begin early the next day. And there are lots of things to learn and people to meet each day. Retreating to your hotel for a quick nap makes a big difference. I built in a day at the end of my trip to do nothing but have lunch with friends and explore Balboa Park and along the coast.

Spending a week in San Diego making friends with librarians from all over the world, learning about all the different job possibilities and trends in the field, and even getting time for fun events like tours, dances and trivia contests sometimes felt like going to librarian summer camp in all of the best possible ways. I was sad to leave new friends and a beautiful city behind, but I know I learned a lot and have promised to stay in touch with the people I’ve met.

Related Posts:
A Tour of the (Virtual) Library
Discovering the Library and the World


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